Data harvest: tech is opening agriculture up to a new generation

This is a contributed article by Lindsay Suddon, Chief Strategy Officer at Proagrica.

Agriculture remains the largest employer in the world, with around a billion people working in the sector. Like other industries, the number is falling as technology automates many of the more gruelling and repetitive jobs. The figures speak for themselves; staffing figures in ag have dropped by almost 20% over the past 30 years. 

While this is to be expected as the influence of tech grows, the bigger question is how the sector attracts the right talent? Legacy perceptions of unsocial hours and agriculture being tied up in family-run businesses have – arguably – made ag a less appealing career option to those looking in from outside of the industry.

It’s easy to forget that farming has been at the forefront of technology from the plough onwards. Tools like AI, GPS and IoT are now helping to diversify the types of roles in agriculture as the sector’s digital transformation moves at pace. Tech has the power to both future proof the industry and make it a more interesting option for a broader range of professionals.

Take the horse to water

That’s not to say everyone is quite ready to embrace this brave new world – the sector has been built on trust that is earned over time through old-fashioned human relationships rather than algorithms. While some might bemoan the move away from traditional practices, it’s the culture that many more would be sorry to see go.  

However, the future of the sector lies in greater collaboration as provisioned through data – while the channel may be different, trust remains the key.  

We cannot ignore the fact that there’s also a price tag attached to bringing technology into ag, and that’s going to be a problem for many – especially for smaller independent businesses and for those outside of the most developed markets. 

However, costs are falling as new data-led services are provisioned through standard consumer technologies, notably smartphones. Elsewhere, the outlay in commonly used tools like smart soil sensors and automated crop irrigation can be quickly recouped simply by reducing manual staffing costs and freeing up the grower’s time to be reinvested into planning.

The bigger picture is how the data generated and provisioned through these technologies can improve each field’s output by enabling trusted agronomic advisors to help optimise the efficacy of inputs such as fertilizer and crop protection decisions. 

Moreover, this data can be used to manage risk. Growers and their advisors can create real-time digital replicas of a field and use predictive modelling to forecast yield in line with particular input variables and assumed external factors, from pesticide shortages to droughts. As such, digital twins can mitigate real world wastage.

Smarter farming for smarter consumers

As data gives growers greater insight into production processes, so too do consumers demand more transparency. A series of scandals have put the sector under significant pressure to demonstrate compliance and best practice. We’re hearing growing calls for higher standards and visibility on how crops are nurtured, the health of livestock, and even the logistics of how produce is transported.

Reassuring end users that all stakeholders are meeting their green commitments and that bad actors are more easily identified and removed from the food chain requires all stakeholders to share relevant portions of the datasets that they generate. Meeting consumer demands on issues like provenance and food miles places a commercial impetus on the industry to invest in collaboration technology.

The ethical case for tech

However, market forces should not be the only driver for technology-led change. Agtech may be making significant advancements in the developed world, but the benefits aren’t yet being seen in every market. A report from the World Bank found two-thirds of the global population that live in extreme poverty earn their livelihood from farming, and in Sub-Saharan Africa just three percent of smallholder farmers are covered by insurance.

If digital tools are shared globally, technology and data will go beyond boosting profit margins. It will improve productivity and help ensure the most vulnerable become better equipped to deal with climate change and other disruption. 

Automation can only go so far

This industry has always needed the brightest minds and the social, economic and climate landscape of the twenty-first century means attracting the best tech talent has never been more important. Yes, automation and data are already having a major impact on agriculture in the most advanced markets. However, making the most of what these technologies can offer and extending them to those markets where they will have the most transformational impact will need new skills and fresh thinking. 

Every segment of the sector is investing in upskilling staff but it needs to work equally hard to attract a new generation of tech-savvy and ambitious young people. That will mean changing attitudes to agriculture by demonstrating the hugely important role the industry has to play in securing a greener and more sustainable future.

Data-led agriculture is a win-win for stakeholders across the value chain. As research shows 80% of Gen-Zs want to work with cutting-edge technology, the closer integration of it will make the sector more attractive to the next generation – and Silicon Valley dovetails with agriculture. 

However, what’s equally significant is the growing importance of a sense of purpose. A growing number of younger people’s career motivations are guided by the aspiration to do something worthwhile over just financial reward. And as motivations go, helping to feed the world has to be one of the better ones!

Lindsay Suddon is Chief Strategy Officer for Proagrica. As one of the original architects of Proagrica, Suddon’s focus continues to be on strengthening Proagrica’s ability to provide a wide range of data-centred solutions to a variety of industry segments across the supply chain, unlocking value for all.

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